Thursday, June 17, 2010

Confessions of a Conference Junkie: My first day at Acton University

I'm in Grand Rapids this week, at my fourth academic conference this year.  My name is Stephen Heiner, and I'm a conference junkie.  A lot of my friends know this already, but Acton is among the largest of the ones I have attended.

In the past three years, I have attended

A Liberty Fund Colloquium on Just War Theory
A Rockford Institute Summer School on the American West
A Rockford Institute Winter School on the Greek Roots of Christendom
A John Randolph Club meeting on the theme, America's Future: Hell or Texas?
An Abbeville Institute Summer School on Reconstruction
An Abbeville Institute Scholars' Conference on Nullification and Secession
A Sigma Tau Delta Regional Conference
and three Sigma Tau Delta International Conventions (it's an English Honor Society)

This year I am slated to attend three more events.

You might be asking yourself why I come to these events.  Well, that brings us back to Acton.  Here are the questions I posed to (or were posed to me) by alleged (I'll explain that in a moment) strangers in my first 24 hours in Grand Rapids (some of them started at baggage claim):

How is the Orthodox notion of the Trinity different from the Catholic notion?

What's all the fuss about Tom Woods v. distributists?

Are you a Lefebvrite?

How does this whole ecumenical thing work, anyway?  Do I pretend like they aren't heretics?

Are you in union with the Church?

How do you think small businesses like yours will survive in this economy?

Who are you cheering for in the World Cup?

What do you mean, you don't believe in Purgatory?

Will the real Kobe show up for Game 6? (He did).

Of course she's Immaculately Conceived! (oh, that wasn't a question)

Where are these "grand rapids" anyway?  Looks pretty peaceful to me.

These are questions I expect at academic conferences, because I'm surrounded by people who are smarter than me, people who make me feel like I'm at the deep end of the swimming pool.  They are questions that will generally be asked and answered with a civility, gentility, and true desire to understand so rarely seen in the "real world."  And they will be delivered passionately, but not emotionally (okay, sometimes emotionally - I've made a "no talk about the Iraq War" resolution to myself this week on advice from friends who've attended Acton in the past).

And that's why I go - I get to agree and disagree with people who care passionately about ideas.  And from those discussions I gain new friends, insights into myself, and reflections I'll ponder on for weeks and months after.  In a world driven by consumption, these anti-consumptive activities paradoxically fill me up (that, and all the snacks I eat continuously that are too, too available just outside our classrooms).

Acton delivers what I've come to expect at "these sorts of things," and some extra items:

1.  A truly diverse crowd.  There are attendees from 6 different countries, including what appear to be at least a dozen priests and even more seminarians.  We have Catholic priests, Orthodox priests, and every shade of Protestant minister.  It is overwhelmingly male (I'd guess 70/30), but the women who are here are quite attractive (not that a single guy notices such things).

2.  A dazzling array of lectures.  While I endured the "foundational series" of lectures with the rest of my Acton freshmen colleagues, tomorrow starts the courses that we hand-picked ourselves.  Here are a few of them:

Virtue and Liberty in the American Founding

The New Deal and the Great Society: Moral and Economic Failure

Distributivism: The Theory and a Critique

Benedict XVI and Caritas in Veritate

3.  A thoroughgoing friendliness.  I don't lack for new friends or friendliness at any conference I attend, usually (it's one of the perks of attending), but it's almost as if people already knew that they were supposed to go up and just introduce themselves.  Which is why I said "alleged" stranger earlier - these people may not be strangers, maybe because they've read your work (I was surprised over breakfast when someone introduced himself and said he read my truerestoration blog) or maybe because you can't really be strangers with people with whom you agree on so many things.  There is also an abundance of staff who know what they are doing and are there to help you at every turn.

4.  A huge spread of books.  Always a Scylla/Charybdis dance for me, a person who isn't allowed to go into a Barnes and Noble alone due to my propensity to buy dozens of books at a time, Acton has a full, full spread of books, with a $1 and free table to boot!  Wait, did I say this was a good thing?

I start my advanced courses tomorrow, but I don't need to wait until then to tell you that you should be here next year.  I can't guarantee you'll get in, because out of a pool of over 800 applicants less than 400 were accepted this year, but if you do get in, you might get most of your way paid.  I got a travel scholarship in addition to a student scholarship.  Which, given what a wonderful opportunity a week at Acton provides, is like getting paid to learn.  Which might be the most satisfying thing of all.

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